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Kwan chooses change at an interesting time

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002

The decision was bold. Its impact far-reaching. And, as is generally the case in situations as this, it forced people to choose sides.

There are many who insist Michelle Kwan was wrong.

And the rest would argue she was horribly wrong.

This is where we find America's premier skater as the U.S. Figure Skating Championships get under way this week in Los Angeles with Olympic team berths at stake. Kwan has spent the past few months lightening her load and, simultaneously, watching her burden grow heavier.

Last spring, Kwan fired longtime choreographer Lori Nichol, a risky move for a skater preparing for the Olympics. Turns out that was a mellow day.

In October, four months from the Salt Lake City Games, Kwan fired coach Frank Carroll and announced she would train solo indefinitely.

Everything about the decision was perplexing. The timing. The vague explanations. The lack of a firm alternative.

And, particularly, the personalties involved.

The parting of ways between a coach and an athlete is commonplace throughout sports, but no one saw it coming in this situation.

Kwan, 21, had worked with Carroll nearly half her life. She won four world championships and an Olympic silver with him at her side. They had no apparent falling out. No bitter arguments. Just a drifting apart among friends.

"In any relationship, it evolves," Kwan said in a teleconference at the time of Carroll's dismissal. "When I was younger, the coach was pretty much the skater. You did whatever he said. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more independent and I think for myself. That's the way it should be.

"You have your differences in the way you should go about things, and that's what Frank and I ran into."

The differences seemed to center on Kwan's training. As the fall began, she clearly was not skating up to her potential and Carroll suggested changes in her training methods. A few days later, Kwan dismissed him.

Perhaps some type of dispute was inevitable. At the time they began working together, Kwan was a wide-eyed 12-year-old. At the time of the split, she was a millionaire adult, a student at UCLA and dating Brad Ference of the NHL's Florida Panthers.

The popular opinion is that Carroll was attempting to get Kwan to focus more on skating. Kwan seemed to suggest that she just needed a change.

"Not to say this decision will make me a better skater, but I'm making it based on what is right for me at the moment," she said in October. "It could be four days before the Olympics, as long as I think it will help me. I've made the decision I'm responsible for my own skating."

Even for those who disagree with the decision -- and they appear to be many -- there is something admirable about Kwan's choice.

Staying with Carroll would have been the easy move. Less distractions and less controversy. It would have made the mornings less lonely on a cold day in a barren rink. It would have given her someone to share ideas and confirm evaluations. And somebody to share in the pressure.

As it is, Kwan has opened herself up to second-guessing and criticism that will intensify if she does not perform well this week.

A gold medal in Los Angeles would be her sixth national championship, but it will not be enough. Besides winning, Kwan needs to answer questions.

She has not beaten Russia's Irina Slutskaya since the World Championships in February and even that was not decisive.

In the 11 months since, Kwan's star has slowly descended. She had a couple of subpar performances before the split with Carroll and has done little to show improvement since.

She won a Skate America competition in the fall, but many in the arena thought she was outperformed by U.S. upstart Sarah Hughes. A week later, Hughes became the first American in three years to beat Kwan when she took gold at Skate Canada and Kwan finished third.

As if ridding herself of Nichol and Carroll was not enough, Kwan then made the choice to dump the East of Eden short program she had used this season and went back to the Rachmaninoff program used for the 1998 Olympics.

The choice of her old music set could be considered desperate. Or maybe it was just a nod toward some unfinished business.

It would not be a stretch to imagine that Kwan resents the position she is in today. That is, the same position as four years ago.

Before the Nagano Games, Kwan was a two-time national champion and a world champion. At 17, she was supposed to be at the peak of her career. And somehow, she finished second.

Tara Lipinksi, at 15, won the gold and immediately turned professional. Kwan was left to contemplate another four years of work for a goal she already had expected to have achieved.

Kwan would win the World Championships two months after Nagano and has since won two more. She is the only modern woman to have won four world championships without winning Olympic gold.

Still, her place in lore should be assured. She is one of history's greatest champions and one of the most elegant skaters in memory.

Yet it seems as if she is unsatisfied. Like she considers herself a victim of fate. In her mind, a winner at all the wrong moments.

Maybe that explains her decision to stand alone this week.

No coach. No excuses. No alibis.

Just an athlete and her legacy.

U.S. Figure Skating Championships

WHEN: Novice and juniors competition runs today through Tuesday. Men's and women's championship competition is Tuesday through Saturday.

WHERE: Staples Center, Los Angeles.

AT STAKE: The top three individuals in men's and women's championships qualify for the Olympics.

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